Feb 20, 2013, 5:28 PM EST
If you think today’s result will just be a one-off, your memory’s short. This is how Chelsea did it last year. This is how Manchester United did it in 2008 and how Chelsea nearly derailed them a year later. This is how Barcelona goes out, but unlike recent years that saw opponents get a goal and hold out, Milan got two. And now one of the tournament favorites is on the brink of leaving UEFA Champions League before they’ve even managed to threaten their opponent’s goal.
That’s how surprisingly lopsided today’s match was, though that imbalance won’t be reflected in the possession stat. At 73 percent, Barcelona held even more of the ball than they’re used to. Yet paradoxically, their attack was far more feeble, only putting one shot on Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati. Barça never showed the will or ability to solve what’s becoming a surprisingly reliable formula.
That formula: Defend. It’s not complicated. Just keep defending to the extreme and wait for your chances, no matter how long it takes. If you stay focused, camp behind the ball, and force Barcelona to move through you, they can be beat. All you need is one moment – one good bounce, one swift movement – and you can derail one of the best teams in the world.
“The result is definitely unexpected,” Milan midfielder Riccardo Montolivo conceded after his team’s 2-0 victory. “We faced the best team in the world.”
Milan’s first moment came in the 57th minute, the first real chance of a game that had been chance-less. Off a restart near the edge of their attacking third, Milan let midfielder Montolivo try from distance. His shot from 30 yards out hit a Barcelona player, went off the hand of Cristian Zapata, and fell for Kevin Prince-Boateng. The Milan attacker turned on his left foot and fired with his right from just inside the box, the bang-bang action leaving Victor Valdés flat-footed as the game’s winning goal flexed the right side of his net.
It was a stroke of bad luck for the Catalans, but sauntering through their road leg with the intensity of camel, Barça was ripe to be caught. It nearly happened in the 11th minute, when Milan broke with numbers after a corner kick. It almost happened in the 16th minute, when a poor touch from Stephan El Shaarawy is all that prevented a point-blank chance on goal. Thanks to long passes from Montolivo and the constant threat of El Shaarawy getting behind right back Dani Alves, Milan was always one movement away from taking the lead.
“We couldn’t create chances, Milan was well-organized,” Alves said before conceding, “We could have competed a bit better.”
Lightning stuck for a second time in the 80th minute when a ball chipped forward M’Baye Niang allowed the French teenager to find El Shaarawy in the box. The young Italian lifted a ball over the right side of Barça’s defense for an oncoming Sulley Muntari, whose finish back across goal put Barcelona on the edge of elimination.
“It was the most important goal of my career,” Muntari said afterward.
No doubt Barcelona controlled the match, but their command was passive, their assured but serene possession playing into Milan’s hands. With three compact midfielders, wingers tracking deep, and a defensive so far back they rarely had to worry about anything behind them, the Rossoneri willing ceded a control that never mattered. They may have only held 27 percent possession, but putting three shots on goal to Barcelona’s one, Milan were the more dangerous side.
“This is a very negative result,” Iniesta said after the match. “When you don’t show up for the game, this can happen.”
With their 2-0 victory, Milan proved more than opportunistic. They were the better side, one that leaves Barcelona needing two goals to have a chance of survival. But even before worry about converting chances, Barça needs to figure out who to create some.
Man of the Match: Montolivo and El Shaarawy were key to how Milan set up, but Kevin Prince Boateng’s finish is what set Milan on their way. Not everybody would have gotten that shot on goal, let alone hit a ball so well that the opposition keeper was left flat-footed. Reflexively shooting as he turned on the ball, Prince allowed Milan to reap the rewards of an extreme but highly successful approach.
And the former Ghanian international did his part on the other end, too, coming back from his right wing position to set up in the area normally patrolled by Andrés Iniesta. The Barça star had a quiet day, and although it was unclear Boateng was the cause of that, his positioning and willingness certainly helped, particularly when he was called on to track Jordi Alba’s runs (as he memorably did to win a ball behind Milan’s line in the 43rd minute).
Threesome of knowledge: What we learned
Allegri, Milan have come a long way - In the wake of the Zlatan Ibrahimovic-Thiago Silva sale, Milan got off to a terrible start to the season. They fell to the bottom half of the Serie A table while struggling to get through their Champions League group.
Now the team sits third and have a path into the Champions League quarterfinals. What happened?
Massimiliano Allegri was given time to figure his new team out, something that didn’t look certain to happen as the Rossoneri stumbled out of the gate. But slowly Allegri determined El Shaarawy was capable of carrying the scoring burden. He incorporated Montolivo, tweaked Prince’s role, and forged a viable central defense from Philippe Mexes, Cristian Zapata, and Mario Yepes.
Along the way, he moved away from Alexandre Pato. Robinho is no longer a major part of this team. Antonio Nocerino, a find last season, isn’t a vital cog in midfield.
Six months after fans were calling for his ouster, Allegri took apart Barcelona. That’s how far his team has come.
Where did Lionel Messi go? - The best player in the world was a complete non-factor. Milan was tight and compact through the middle, giving Messi no space to work, but even when the Balon d’Or winner started going wide right in an attempt to find room to work, he failed to have an impact on the game. Aside from a 29th flash when he beat left back Kevin Constant, Messi might as well have been on the sidelines.
For only the second time this season, Messi was held without a shot on goal.
It’s not like Barcelona’s other stars were much better. Xavi Hernández and Andres Iniesta played a bigger part in the game, but that’s to be expected. Milan wasn’t crowding the areas were they operate. Cesc Fábregas and Pedro Rodríguez? Their names were rarely called.
Messi, however, usually finds a way to break through. Even when he’s off, he’s capable of finding a moment of brilliance. Tonight, he wasn’t even close.
A portable approach - Milan’s tactics weren’t complicated. They weren’t dependent on anything specific to the San Siro, and as we’ve seen in recent years, other teams have been able to execute this approach on the road. There’s no reason why Milan can’t replicate this performance in Spain. Carrying two goals out of the San Siro, they even have license to be more extreme.
Barcelona may be able to break through in Spain, but odds are they’ll lose if they don’t change things up. They know their recent history. They know they need a Plan B. They can’t just assume dogma will win out.
The question is whether they can change. Do they have enough diversity of talent within the team to make the necessary changes? Is there even enough familiarity with a different approach to make those tweaks viable? Is there the will to try?
Barcelona’s in big trouble, and their problems transcend the score. They’re not a team well equipped to address this kind of challenge. They may be left with no recourse but to play their normal style and hope this time it wins out.
Packaged for takeaway
- Victor Valdés actually had a good day, particularly in the first half where a couple of aggressive reads helped him snuff out changes before they developed. But there was little he could have done to prevent either goal.
- The matchup between El Shaarawy and Alves was a particularly interesting one, with the young Italian tasked with tracking the Barcelona wingback. Early, it became evident Milan was going to try and exploit Alves’s want to push forward, with Montolivo constantly firing diagonals behind the Barça right back. Though the matchup never really bore fruit, it still helped define how Milan set up.
- Mario Balotelli is cup-tied, having appeared in the competition with Manchester City. He was seen celebrating on the sidelines during the match’s final moments.
- Looking at Barcelona’s bench, it’s unclear how they could have significantly changed their team. Alexis Sanchez came on, and Javier Mascherano eventually replaced a cut Carles Puyol, but the rest of the team represents a series of more-or-less like-for-like options: Alexander Song, Cristian Tello, Martín Montoya, and Thiago Alcantera.
Stay with us throughout Wednesday as we take a look at the day’s other match, Turkish champions Galatasaray hosting Germans Schalke 04.
Dec 12, 2013, 11:00 PM EST
Unless a player lifts his shirt over his head, you may never see Intel’s contribution to Barcelona’s uniforms.
Where They Stand: Europa League’s 32 knockout round teams (and their potential effect on UEFA’s coefficients)
Dec 12, 2013, 10:05 PM EST
Italy and Ukraine could see big boosts to their coefficients, with each federation placing four teams in Europa’s knockout rounds.
Dec 12, 2013, 9:04 PM EST
How close is PRP to blood doping? Close enough to get the Premier League’s attention.
Dec 12, 2013, 8:02 PM EST
The two-time Defender of the Year rejoins former Crew boss Sigi Schmid in Seattle.
Dec 12, 2013, 7:09 PM EST
The Dash join the Portland Thorns as MLS-backed teams in women’s league.
Dec 12, 2013, 6:17 PM EST
Recovery timeline could leave Portland winger passed over by Costa Rica.
Dec 12, 2013, 5:31 PM EST
Like other notable quality American outfielders (e.g. Clint Dempsey), Cameron is a late-developer who has really evolved.
Dec 12, 2013, 4:38 PM EST
D.C. United upgraded half their defense on Thursday. But what are they getting for the money?
Dec 12, 2013, 3:38 PM EST
We saw this coming. Portland traded up on Thursday to snare the former Zip.
Early approval: Klinsmann extends contract, will serve as U.S. head coach, technical director through 2018
Dec 12, 2013, 3:01 PM EST
Klinsmann’s signed up for another cycle, the U.S. hoping to extend its evolution beyond Brazil.
Dec 12, 2013, 2:01 PM EST
This marks the first time a Bundesliga club has played in the league’s summer showcase.
Dec 12, 2013, 1:05 PM EST
Two big questions this weekend: 1) Can Spurs stop Luis Suarez? and
2) Does City’s midfield rival that of Arsenal?
Dec 12, 2013, 10:26 AM EST
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, Young says, but “for me, the referees have made decisions and that’s it.”
Dec 12, 2013, 9:15 AM EST
Would Moyes really loan Zaha to a competitor like Everton or Newcastle?
Dec 12, 2013, 8:01 AM EST
When looking back at the biggest UK Twitter “surges” of 2013 there is one topic that dominates the landscape: footy.
Dec 11, 2013, 11:46 PM EST
You can’t been drawn against a team from your own federation – a rule that will hurt Arsenal, Manchester City on Monday.
Dec 11, 2013, 10:24 PM EST
The defenses need to get better in both places. A lot better:
No, the South Florida team will NOT be “Miami Beckham United;” plus the MLS news roundup for Dec. 11
Dec 11, 2013, 9:23 PM EST
A little social media brush fire over the new Miami expansion outfit was promptly, mercifully extinguished:
Dec 11, 2013, 8:33 PM EST
Highlights from all Wednesday’s games, which saw Barça’s newest start break out, Italy’s reigning champions eliminated.
Dec 11, 2013, 7:46 PM EST
Once you narrow the list to 15 or so, it’s nearly impossible to decide from there:
- What could Chad Marshall bring to the Seattle Sounder defense? We’ll find out in 2014 2
- NWSL: Houston becomes second MLS franchise to place team in women’s professional league 1
- MLS Re-Entry Draft: As predicted, Portland find a way to get Steve Zakuani 4
- Early approval: Klinsmann extends contract, will serve as U.S. head coach, technical director through 2018 3
- MLS announces Bayern Munich as opponent for 2014 All-Star Game in Portland 4
- WATCH: Can Tottenham stop Luis Suarez and can City beat Arsenal? 0
- 2014 World Cup Draw: Recapping the event (43)
- 2014 World Cup Draw: USA in Group of Death with Germany, Portugal, Ghana – Schedule, times, venues (34)
- Now that we know the U.S. opponents, which 23 players should Jurgen Klinsmann bring to Brazil? (21)
- Sporting Kansas City crowned 2013 MLS champions after 10 rounds of penalty kicks (16)
- U.S. national team discussion: The Alejandro Bedoya conundrum (14)
- Giovani: "We Were Over Criticized"
- Watch Out Netherlands! Chile-Clan Ain't Nothin' to Mess With!
- Messi on Safe Track to Full Recovery
- The Argentinian Armada, Favorites for Brazil 2014
- Brazil 2014: A Look At South America
- Arena de Amazonia: Host of USA vs CR7
- USA Will Advance in Brazil
- You Can't Beat German Sachlichkeit
- Aurelien Collin: I Think France is Very Very Happy
- Group B: No Walk In The Park